British Journal Debunks Some Medical Oddities

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NPR's Robert Siegel speaks to Tony Delamothe, associate editor of the British medical journal BMJ, and the editor of the BMJ's annual Christmas issue. This year's issue has studies debunking the idea that soaking feet in alcohol can get you drunk; the effects of alcohol on digesting a rich meal; and that redheads bleed more profusely, have a reduced pain threshold and tend to get hernias.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Here's some news we learned courtesy of BMJ, a journal formerly known as the British Medical Journal. Contrary to popular belief, redheads don't get more hernias. And soaking your feet in vodka will not get you drunk. That latter belief is apparently popular in Denmark.

Those nuggets of wisdom come from BMJ's Christmas issue, which is edited by Tony Delamothe, who joins us now from London. Welcome to the program.

Mr. TONY DELAMOTHE (Editor, BMJ): Hello.

SIEGEL: And, first, the paper that shows that one can wade in vodka without getting drunk, what was the point of that research?

Mr. DELAMOTHE: I think the point of it was it's a really seriously held belief in Denmark. And these researchers thought we should put it to the test. So they put their feet in vodka for three hours. They took blood samples every 30 minutes and they discovered their blood alcohol didn't rise at all. So they said people in Denmark can stop thinking about this.

SIEGEL: And a corollary to that would be driving a car or skippering a boat wearing boots full of vodka is safe.

Mr. DELAMOTHE: That's right. And they say that people who fall into vats at breweries have got nothing to fear, that the skin isn't a very good absorptive for alcohol.

SIEGEL: And that particular piece of medical research is, in a way, typical of the Christmas issue of BMJ?

Mr. DELAMOTHE: Yes, a little bit quirky. I mean, none of them are hoaxes. None of them are made up. It's just that the subjects of the Christmas research articles are all a bit sort of quirky and wacky and different.

SIEGEL: Carrying on with a theme related a bit to the Danish research, the issue also has a study on eating rich meals and the effect of drinking alcohol as opposed to drinking tea. What is the finding?

Mr. DELAMOTHE: That was specifically cheese fondue. And apparently in Switzerland there is debate about whether it's white wine or black tea which is the best accompaniment for the cheese fondue. They had 20 people this time around and they assessed how fast their stomachs emptied the food. And they found that alcohol, if you took alcohol - wine and schnapps as opposed to black tea, which is the other favorite beverage in Switzerland for drinking with fondue, if you drink alcohol, it really delayed your gastric emptying time.

So that six hours after your fondue and alcohol, your stomach only emptied by about 50 percent. So, unsurprising if you went to bed and, you know, you felt full for hours and hours and hours and couldn't get to sleep.

SIEGEL: So, for those purposes, the tea would be the wiser...

Mr. DELAMOTHE: They recommend the tea, definitely.

SIEGEL: Another misconception that I had never conceived of was that redheads are believed to be especially hernia-prone. Who believes that?

Mr. DELAMOTHE: Well, apparently surgeons and anesthesiologists are sort of worried about redheads. They believe that they bleed more, that they need more anesthetics than other people. And that they develop hernias more readily.

And so this wasn't original research. This was a team of people who looked at all the literature they could get their hands on and they decided that on balance, there wasn't any good evidence that redheads bled more than other people.

They did find a couple of studies that suggested they might need more anesthetic agents when they have operations. But there was no evidence that they were more likely to develop hernias.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: Good news for redheads the world over, I should think.

Mr. DELAMOTHE: Yeah. And whether that means that surgeons will stop worrying about them remains to be seen, I suppose.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: This is a piece of ill-conceived folk wisdom, you say, peculiar to doctors.

Mr. DELAMOTHE: That - not by the Danes but by surgeons everywhere, apparently. I mentioned the paper to surgeons before it was published; they all nodded very sagely and said, yes, yes, it's true. It's all true.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DELAMOTHE: It's generally widely believed. But it shouldn't be after this paper, because there's hardly anything to prop it up.

SIEGEL: Tony Delamonthe, who edited this year's Christmas issue of BMJ, the journal formerly known as the British Medical Journal. Mr. Delamothe, thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. DELAMOTHE: Pleasure.

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